Time is a Major Theme in Ian McEwan’s “The Child In Time”
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“Time….is always susceptible to human interpretation. And though time is partly a human fabrication, it is also that from which no parent or child is immune.”
Time is a major theme in Ian McEwan’s ‘The Child In Time’. He treats the subject irreverently, ‘debunking chronology by the nonlinearity of his narrative.’ – Michael Byrne. McEwan uses the setting of Stephen’s dull committee as the backdrop for his daydreaming. Even Stephen’s thoughts are not choronological, and his daydreams constantly flit between different times, although this could be to emphasise the overall flexibility of time.
At first sight, it seems that the loss of Kate will be the central event, but McEwan strays through a wide spectrum of events, including the central one, Stephen’s encounter at ‘The Bell’, to try and explain his feelings. The scene at The Bell also refers to a vivid dream McEwan had, where he walked towards a pub knowing he would find the meaning of his life, knowing he would be terrified, but also needing to go on. This is the most important event in the book, and the most difficult to interpret in terms of the behaviour of time.
The book does not even begin with the loss of Kate, as you would expect, but Stephen on a normal morning. He relates everything he sees to time, the passing of which is even more important to him than anything else. After all, ‘the heartless accumulation of days, after the loss of Kate, has driven Stephen to deep depression, and endless thought. In his depression, he lives for Kate, the only purpose of his existence. This is how he knows he is alive, how he counts the days.
‘Kate’s growing up had become the essence of time itself…without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop.’ Stephen obsessively thinks about what might have happened the morning he lost her at the supermarket, and the way time behaved that day.
‘But time…monomaniacally forbids second chances.’ No-one can ever manipulate time, it is not an ‘independent entity.’- Rebecca Goldstein. It is not something to use, but something to work around, a part of life.
Stephen also describes part of his depression as ’empty time’ probably because there is noting to fill it but his daydreams.
On his way to Julie’s cottage, just before his encounter at The Bell, he crosses a wheat field. His own ‘weak and particular understanding’ of time is once again distorted. The landscape is constantly the same, with Stephen making the same movements, so ‘all sense of progress, and therefore all sense of time disappeared.’ Stephen once again interprets time as being something different. The image conveyed suggests time is measured by progress, not the other way around. It suggests that if everything stayed the same, or was on a constant loop, would time exist?
As he continues to walk, his mind goes blank. He cannot concentrate consciously, however everything else appears crystal clear. He is trapped in a time of ‘mental white noise.’
As Stephen makes his way towards The Bell, he begins to realise this will be a momentous event in his life. It is something deeper than he can reach; it is not a memory, and it not something he has imagined.
‘But it was not just a place he was being offered, it was a particular day, this day…this particular location had its origins outside his own existence.’
He realises he cannot be in reality because it seems to him that ‘…the day he now inhabited was not the day he had woken into.’ He has ‘slipped through a rift in the fabric of time itself,’ and both he and his mother know each other are there, although they both appear to be not quite real, to be something the imagination has created, or some reality which the mind has interpreted. Another thought, and he is in the womb again, and a feeling of deep sadness inside him is ‘unwrapped’ as he realises how fragile existence is, and how life should be valued above all else. ‘Stephen has experienced the universal desire to return to the security of his mother’s womb, only to be shaken by what a precarious state that truly was.’ – Michael Byrne.
‘Nothing was his own, not his sounds or his movement, not the calling sounds, not even the sadness, nothing was nothing’s own.’
He spends some time with the committee, and visits his parents. Rather than being consumed by a self – indulgent depression, at this point he seems to be lost in a deep irreversible sadness. His father is blunt, and tells him to ‘get on and write a book. It’s time you did. Kate’s not coming back. Julie’s gone. You might as well get on with it.’ This unexpected outburst surprises Stephen, and forces him to think about his life, and makes him realise he still has a future to live, and time to fill.
The time in this next chapter is perceived quite differently by Stephen and by Joe, the lorry driver. It exhorts in Stephen feelings of desire for Julie; he wanted her to be with him, because he knew ‘Julie would have appreciated what had happened to time, how duration shaped itself around the intensity of the event. This is contrasted to Joe’s perception of the passing of time during the crash. ‘ ‘How long was I in there? Two hours? Three?’ ‘Ten minutes or less’ Joe’s thoughts also relate to Stephen’s earlier point about the relation of time to progress. ‘I was inside once for almost two years. Nothing to do, nothing happening, every fucking day the same. And you know what? It went in a flash, my time. It was all over before I knew I was there. So it stands to reason if a lot happens quickly it’s going to seem like a long time.’
Charles’ regression into childhood, although painted as a breakdown by the media, and dismissed by Stephen as he doesn’t know how to deal with it, is in fact another trick of time. Charles manipulates it to an extreme, taking his mind backwards. He is ‘lost in time’ but only within his own invention. Charles seems like he grew up too quickly, shown to us through a picture Thelma described as ‘..a horrid little picture taken when he was eight….In the photograph Charles looks like a scaled – down version of his father – same suit and tie, the same self – important posture and grown – up expression.’ Extravagant descriptions of his early adult life with Thelma provide the suggestion that maybe Charles was ‘denied a childhood.’ Charles’ choices were unlimited, within the realms of his own consciousness. His mind created and shaped events for him, because he needed to spend extra time, or time he had missed, as a child.
Thelma exists as a character to explain things and guide Stephen through his depression, and is the only character who could try and tolerate Charles’ behaviour, due to her thesis on the nature of time.
‘One offering has the world dividing every infinitesimal fraction of a second into an infinite number of possible versions, constantly branching and proliferating, with consciousness neatly picking its way through to create the illusion of a stable reality.’ She also gives the reader an idea on why the novel is written the way it is; McEwan uses Thelma to convey his thoughts on the behaviour of time. She says that ‘whatever time is, the commonsense, everyday version of it as linear, regular, absolute marching from left to right, from the past through the present to the future, is either nonsense or a tiny fraction of the truth.’
Stephen returns home, although still with little interest in living, inhabits ’empty time’ and watches TV game shows ‘with an addict’s glazed patience.’ This is described an ‘inert time’, a good description as Stephen does nothing for himself or anybody else. His return to the committee meetings is a relief to him, and give him a purpose. However, after he has a near total breakdown, and runs after a young girl who he believes to be Kate, he feels ‘purged’ and begins his psychological recovery, after which, the committee meetings ‘cease to represent a refuge of organised time in a chaos of wasted days.’
Stephen visits his parents again, where he resumes the conversation about his experience at The Bell to attempt to find out more about his origin.
‘There was a face at the window….it was staring into the pub…I just knew I was looking at my own child.’
Stephen’s and Claire’s experiences are too close to be coincidence, and this gives us evidence that time did play tricks, and has more than one layer.
Back at the flat, he receives an invitation from Thelma asking him to come and see her. He is delayed by a visit from the Prime Minister but arrives at the Darke’s cottage late at night. When he arrives, Thelma asks him to bring Charles’ body in. The trauma of trying to live a child’s life in an adult world had finally overwhelmed Charles. He was not immune to the relentless movement of time.
‘Childhood to him was timelessness, he talked about it as though it were a mystical state. I think Charles admired children for their innocence, and I think he was trying to ‘attain the seriousness of a child at play’ by manipulating his time. He wasn’t happy with the life that had been mapped out for him but to try and break free was an insurmountable task. He wanted to stay in a state of timelessness forever. Maybe Charles was afraid of time. Michael Byrne states that ‘McEwan suggests that adults are failed children whose rationality has replaced wonder, whose seriousness has replaced playfulness, and whose guardedness has replaced unconditional love.’ Stephen talks to Thelma and she spells out for Stephen what he must have subconsciously known for months. He and Julie are still in love, and she phones to tell him that she is having contractions. They finally manage to talk about Kate, and Julie connects time more with fate than her own control.
‘There had to be a deeper patterning to time, its wrong and its right moments can’t be that limited.’ This also links to Thelma’s theory of an infinite number of possibilities.
Stephen and Julie finally manage to level their grief over Kate and cry together, when Julie goes into labour and has the baby, and Stephen enters ‘dream time’. He finds this surreal, his time seems slower, but full of purpose and he is full of love for Julie, Kate, and the new baby.
Time is not a human fabrication, as much as it is not an independent entity. Time needs people as much as people need time; they cannot survive autonomously. However, time is a huge concept, and is interpreted differently by each and every person; it is unique. Because it depends on imagination, time can be changed, or given a purpose, but never erased or moved.
The human mind is constantly flitting between the past, present and future. It cannot remain on one straight path in the present. It needs to explore other possibilities to survive; memory is a way of exploring the past, and daydreaming a way of exploring just a few of the infinite possibilities of the future. The mind needs both to remain sane.
Even after things happen, the human mind shapes these events to fit in with the time you imagined. The main point of the book is that time is non – linear. Ian McEwan uses his characters to explain his views on time and he contrasts them to show how differently each character interprets that time. It holds utmost control, even though it is not independent. Nobody can ever escape it. Stephen, Julie and Kate couldn’t escape time, and Stephen ‘was to make efforts to re – enter this moment, to burrow his way back through the folds between events, crawl beneath the covers, and reverse his decision’ but, as Thelma said, ‘Time – not necessarily as it is, for who knows that, but as thought has constituted it – monomaniacally forbids second chances.’